Cibola National Forest
Guide

Introduction

Stretching over 1.6 million acres just outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Cibola National Forest is a scenic mountain reserve with some of the best hiking in the state. Cibola National Forest is divided among four Ranger Districts that are spread out across the region, including Sandia, Mountainair, Magdalena, and Mt. Taylor. Dozens of miles of trails lead you through the forest at the base of Sandia Mountain. You’ll also find excellent hunting in the area, with big game species including deer, elk, and antelope.

With four wilderness areas, nature lovers will have a variety of sights to see. Visit the Sandia Mountains and hike up to lookouts over 10,000 feet above the blue grama grass plains. You can take the Sandia Crest Scenic Byway up to the summit or hike your way up. Birdwatchers will also find plenty to keep them busy, with hundreds of species visiting the area throughout the year. If you want to see something truly special head to the Sandia Man Cave, which is a unique archaeological site that is roughly 10,000 years old.

Camp at Albuquerque KOA, conveniently located just outside of Albuquerque, or choose among more than a dozen RV campgrounds within the forest. Find more information on some featured RV campgrounds by checking out the RV Camping section below.

RV Rentals in Cibola National Forest

Transportation

Driving

Cibola National Forest is located just outside of Albuquerque, making it easy to access by RV. This national forest covers over one million divided across four Ranger Districts: Sandia, Mountainair, Magdalena, and Mt. Taylor. Since the districts are scattered around the larger Albuquerque region, you'll need a rig or car to access every corner of the forest.

To get to the forest from Albuquerque, take I-25 north to NM-556, and you’ll arrive in just under half an hour. You can also take I-40 out of the city if you want to head to the southern portion of the forest. From Santa Fe, head south on I-25, and you’ll reach the forest in just over an hour.

Although it’s easy to access most of the main RV campgrounds in the area without driving on narrow, winding roads, there are only a few roads that cut through the forest. NM-165 leads into the forest from the north, and will take you to the access road that scales Sandia Mountain. You can also take I-40 into the heart of the forest and then head south on NM-337 to reach areas of interest such as Cedro Peak.

Parking

Public Transportation

Campgrounds and parking in Cibola National Forest

Campsites in Cibola National Forest

Reservations camping

Albuquerque KOA Campground

This campground is located just off I-40, making it one of the most convenient options for visitors to the forest. There are 195 sites in the campground, many of which have electrical hookups. You’ll have access to modern restrooms, showers, and drinking water. You’ll be about a ten-minute drive from the forest, and you can also easily reach the access road that takes you to the top of Sandia Mountain.

The campground is fairly large, so you’ll usually be able to reserve a spot with little notice. However, you should book in advance if you are visiting during peak season beginning in May and running through September.

First-come first-served

Fourth of July Campground

This simple campground, located in the Mountainair Ranger District, has basic sites that are near a number of hiking trails. There are picnic tables and vault toilets available, but no access to drinking water. The sites are fairly small, and can only fit rigs up to 22 feet long. You’ll be right next to the Fourth of July trailhead, which takes you up through the Manzano Mountain Wilderness.

Capilla Peak Campground

With some of the best views of the Manzano Mountains and the Rio Grande Valley, this eight-site campground is a popular choice in the Mountaineer Ranger District. The sites have no hookups, but you’ll have access to picnic tables and two vault toilets. At 9,200 feet, you’ll be close to some of the best trails in the Manzano Mountains, as well as the Hawkwatch raptor counting station.

McGaffey Campground

McGaffey Campground is the largest RV campground in the Mt. Taylor Ranger District. At 8,000 feet and set amid large ponderosa pines, you’ll have plenty of privacy at the 29 sites. There are 12 vault toilets in the campground, as well as multiple water access points. None of the sites have hookups, but there are grills and fire pits. A number of hiking trails are near the campground, including the popular Strawberry Canyon Trail. This campground is open from May to September. Only smaller rigs less than 22 feet in length can be accommodated.

Seasonal activities in Cibola National Forest

In-Season

Hiking

RV campers interested in hiking will find a range of trails in the forest suited to hikers of varying experience levels. Hike to the top of Sandia Mountain for views overlooking the forest, or enjoy a less strenuous hike on one of the hundreds of short trails in the forest. You can also connect to the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, a 3,100-mile long trail that stretches across five states. If you hike during the summer, be prepared for extreme temperatures. Bring plenty of water, and try to get started early in the morning.

Fishing

Anglers will find a number of opportunities throughout Cibola National Forest. Black Kettle Lake is stocked with channel catfish, sunfish, largemouth bass, and crappie. Lake McCellan is another popular fishing destination in the area, with sunfish, white crappie, large and smallmouth bass, and blue catfish. In addition, you can enjoy fishing a number of streams and rivers in the area, especially near Mt. Taylor. Some of the main RV campgrounds, including at Black Kettle Lake, have bait shops and boat launches.

Biking

Many of the trails Cibola National Forest are multi-use, allowing RV campers to bike. The trails vary in terms of difficulty. Experienced bikers can climb to the top of Sandia Mountain, reaching an elevation of over 10,000 feet. You can also find easier trails in the foothills of the mountains, if you want an easier ride. The main RV campgrounds in the area do not rent bikes, although you’ll be able to find a number of rental shops in Albuquerque.

Off-Season

Hunting

Most of the 1.6 million acres in the forest are open to hunting, with a range of big game species including elk, deer, and antelope. With a mix of dense forest canopy, mountains, and open grasslands, you’ll have a variety of terrain types to explore. Take caution while hunting in the forest, as there are a number of private plots of land in the area. Hunting is not allowed near any of the campgrounds or buildings in the forest. Be careful when near the hiking trails in the area, especially during peak hiking season in the fall.

Birdwatching

RV campers interested in birdwatching will find over a hundred species visiting the forest throughout the year. The mountain views also give you a number of scenic lookouts, making it easier to spot birds of prey as they hunt. The forest is located just outside of Albuquerque, which has an active community of birdwatchers. Check their websites for more information on the birds in the area, as well as field guides.

Scenic Driving

The forest features a number of scenic drives, giving you beautiful views of the area from the top of peaks over 10,000 feet tall. Sandia Mountain is one of the forest’s natural highlights, and you can reach the summit via a winding road scaling the side of the mountain. Do note that many of the roads in the forest are narrow and have a number of tight turns. If you have a large rig, you may not be able to make it all the way to the summit of some of the drives.

Find the perfect campsite.